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US, Pakistan build military ties, one officer at a time

Revived exchange program points up Pakistan's importance to US aims in Afghanistan.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / May 11, 2009

Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

In Classroom 2318 here, Major Naeem is studying the American Civil War, but the lessons being learned are less about Jeb Stuart's Ride or the Confederate advance than about building trust.

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Naeem is one of dozens of Pakistanis attending US military schools this year, part of a long tradition in which senior foreign officers visit the United States not only to learn military culture, tactics, and history but also to create lasting relationships.

Naeem is proud of the bonds he has made with fellow officers. But he's also frustrated. He cites a general lack of understanding here about his country and says he thinks the US is disrespecting Pakistan and its Army by using unmanned aircraft to attack militant havens inside its borders.

"Any drone attack hurts me," he says quietly after class.

Success in Afghanistan hinges on its neighbor, Pakistan, and on America's ability to leverage its on-again, off-again relationship with the government in Islamabad. Critics say the US is relying too heavily on the Pakistani military to fight militants there. But others say the US must rebuild a lasting and strategic relationship with Pakistan that gets beyond the suspicions and veiled insults that often emanate from both sides.

In his faded camouflage uniform and with his backpack filled with books on US history, Naeem personifies this connection. The US hosted some 260 Pakistani officers last year – from year-long programs to shorter exchanges. Ties built here pay dividends years later: Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani Army and a linchpin of US interests in Pakistan, graduated from the Leavenworth program decades ago.

Recently, the Pakistan connection has become so important that the US is seeking to double the number of officers in the exchange within five years, says a Central Command official. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has urged this expansion, saying it is vital to engage with Pakistan for the long term and in positive ways.

It is a bid to change the relationship between the two countries, which has been characterized by fits and starts since the end of the cold war. It hit a low in the 1990s after Congress approved sanctions on Pakistan to (unsuccessfully) prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. Weapons sales and officer programs were put on ice.

The US saw Pakistan as an important ally again only after 9/11. Defense officials refer to the years in between as "the lost decade," a time of essentially no personal interaction between the militaries.

"There's an entire generation ... of Pakistani military officers who never had the opportunity to visit the United States because of various sanctions that were on – some for understandable reasons," said Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, a region of responsibility that includes South Asia and the Middle East, during a television interview in April.